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Ginnett's Circus

On 6 April 1859 three members of this circus signed the Visitors’ Book at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Norma Hampson
Shakespeare's Birthplace visitor book cover
Shakespeare's Birthplace visitor book

Ginnett’s Circus was founded in Marseille, France, by Jean Pierre Ginnett and his brother. After the Battle of Waterloo 1815, having been thought to be in the high ranks of the French Cavalry because of the large number of horses they owned, they were captured and brought to England aboard prison ships. Released when the war was over some members of the family remained in England and Jean Pierre started in show business with his Pony & Budgerigar show at Ludgate Circus in London.  From this small beginning the circus grew to become one of the largest in this country during the 19th century.

His son John, born in 1926 in Lea, Essex, married Sarah Spender Savage in 1855 and can be found in the 1871 census living with his mother-in-law Mary Savage at 12 Guild Street, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Mary Savage   head    widow 61 lodging house keeper             born Warwick

John F Ginnett            son-in-law widower 49 circus proprietor born London

John V C F Ginnett    grandson 14 scholar                                 born Bath

Frederick E Ginnett    grandson 12 scholar                                 born Sheffield

Albert G Ginnett         grandson  7                                              born Southampton 

The various places of birth demonstrate that the circus was constantly on the move. His wife Sarah died in Southampton in April 1866.  In 1874 John married Anna Maria Snape at Warwick moving with her and their sons to Brighton in 1876 where he built his first permanent circus or hippodrome at Park Crescent Place. It became the Gaiety Theatre in 1890 and was replaced by a block of flats in the 1930s. A further development, the Hippodrome, was built to commemorate the jubilee of the founding of the Circus in Nottingham 1841. John died 12 January 1892 and is buried in Woodvale Cemetery, Brighton in the family mausoleum. A statue of a circus pony, its head lowered in sorrow, dominates the structure. 

Ginnett's circus

There appears to be little information about the clown Thomas Fellis and Esther Fellis but Phoebe Frost the equestrienne is quite well documented. Born in Carlisle, Cumberland on 27 June 1842; daughter of William Frost, equestrian and his wife Zeppora, she is found in the census of 1851 to be living with her sister Sarah Antonia Frost, an eighteen years old equestrienne, in Lambeth, London.  In 1861 she is recorded as living as a boarder at 40 Sackville Street, Manchester along with six other equestrians including her sister Sarah now married to a fellow equestrian John Wilson and their two children.  

Phoebe was also known as Madame Maude Sanyeah and when touring the USA in the 1870s was billed as ‘Empress of the Air and Flying Meteor’. In the act she flew by means of suspended rings along a wire, loosing hold of the rings to be caught by her partner, Sam Sanyeah, who was hanging by his feet from the bar of a fixed trapeze.  Sadly he was injured in a fall and forced to retire ending his life in a hospital for the insane at Kankakee where he drowned at the age of sixty-five

Phoebe married John Conklin, a cannon ball performer, in San Francisco, USA on 4 November 1872.  It was claimed that he was the first performer to catch a cannon ball fired from a cannon. His last engagement was in Germany in spring 1885 and he died 15 September in that year at the home of his brother in St. Louis, MO. Phoebe on her return to England had a group of performing dogs. She died 25 June 1910 in Lambeth age 69.

The Circus continued touring the country until the outbreak of the First World War when their horses were confiscated by the War Office for the war effort.  It was re-established in 1989 by descendants of the family and is still in existence currently run by Patrick Austin and his son Luke.  A video of 2013 can be seen on their website, which gives details of their performances for 2017. 


Circus Historical Society:  Slout, William, L., ‘Olympians of the Sawdust Circle’ John Frederick Ginnett 1826 - 1892

Census Returns : 1851  HO107 1571, 1861 RG 9 2944 , 1871 RG3208

UK and Ireland Find a Grave Index

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